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Family sues over recalled almonds

Jeff St. John, The Tri-City Herald

May 25, 2004

A Kennewick family sickened by salmonella bacteria filed suit Monday against a California almond grower who last week recalled nearly 13 million pounds of raw almonds linked to salmonella illnesses across the country.

Scott and Shawnna Morris and their children ages 3 and 1 are plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging Shawnna Morris and the children were sickened by salmonella-contaminated almonds bought in January from a Costco store.

Family members were hospitalized in February and tested positive for salmonella, a bacteria transmitted through fecal contamination that can cause fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and can lead to long-term health problems, said Dave Babcock, an attorney with Seattle-based Marler Clark Attorneys at Law, which is representing the Morrises.

"They are doing considerably better," Babcock said, "but with respect to the youngest child, there are still some aspects of recovery."

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane, alleges Los Angeles-based Paramount Farms sold contaminated almonds not fit for human consumption. The Marler Clark law firm won a $4.6 million award for 11 Finley families with children sickened in 1998 by school lunches contaminated with E. coli.

On Wednesday, Paramount Farms recalled raw almonds sold under Costco Wholesale Inc.'s Kirkland Signature brand, and under the Trader Joe's and Sunkist brands.

"We're talking about millions of people who may have eaten these nuts, and we've come up with 22 or 23 cases" of salmonella illness, said Dr. William Keene, an epidemiologist with the Oregon state Department of Human Services.

His department took the lead in the investigation after discovering five cases of salmonella in Oregon could be linked by the genetic similarity of the infecting bacteria.

Through questioning the ill people in Oregon and in other states where the genetically linked bacteria were found, it was determined they all had eaten raw almonds bought at Costco, Keene said.

The almonds were linked to illnesses in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Arizona and Utah, and other cases have emerged in Michigan, Tennessee, Massachusetts and possibly other states, he said.

While most of the recalled almonds likely have been eaten or cooked, which kills the bacteria, they still could be in cupboards and refrigerators across the country, he said.

Paramount Farms spokesman Chris Tuffli said he hadn't seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it. He said this was the company's first recall, and that tests of the facility where the almonds were processed showed no sign of salmonella contamination.

"We took what we feel were very aggressive precautionary measures to respond," he said, including the recall. In addition, the company is now pasteurizing all its raw almonds, which kills the bacteria, he said.

The lawsuit seeks payment for medical expenses, lost wages and earning capacity and other damages to the Morris family.

"It's too early at this point, especially with a child, to say how much money we're looking for," Babcock said. "We'll see how everybody recovers."

Only raw almonds have been recalled. They can be identified by the "best before" date on the package, Tuffli said.

For the Trader Joe's and Sunkist brands, those dates are Aug. 21, 2004, to May 20, 2005, and for the Kirkland Signature brand the dates are Aug. 21, 2004 to March 31, 2005.

He encouraged anyone with questions about the recall to call a toll-free consumer hotline, 1-800-496-5168.

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